Charles Darwin did not practice science the way we do today. He was not employed by a university or a government research lab, and did not spend his time applying for government research grants. He did not devote his entire career to the study of a single species or to the pursuit of a single methodology the way modern scientists often do. His curiosity ranged from insectivorous plants to the effects that worms have in changing soil composition. He was a citizen scientist, who followed his intellectual curiosity wherever it led him.
Between Darwin’s time and our own, science became institutionalized. There are far more scientists today than there ever were in Darwin’s time, most operating far from the public eye. For every David Suzuki who brings science to the people in his everyday work, there are thousands more scientists we don’t get to see or meet. Their research may be fascinating, perhaps even critical to human wellbeing, but we never hear much about it. It gets published in scholarly journals that only other scientists ever read, or presented at academic conferences the public does not attend.
We need scientists who practice science for its own sake, far from the spotlights. Most scientific research is unglamorous, repetitive, and has many more failures than successes. Good science does not often make for good TV. Many of the things scientists consider “breakthroughs” make non-scientists yawn. And many of the things scientists do – such as mixing chemicals, collecting viruses, and cataloguing endangered species – are best practiced out of sight by professionals.
However, there is a lot of scientific research that benefits from the active participation of the general public. Environmental research particularly benefits from the participation of citizen scientists. Why? One reason is that the scale and complexity of natural systems are so great. For example, an army of professional scientists, armed with a thousand well-equipped labs and billions of dollars in operating funds, might be able to figure out the future impacts of climate change on Canada. But such resources do not exist and probably never will. If we want to answer such a big, important question, we need to develop a different army, one composed of ordinary citizens of all ages and backgrounds who are willing to share some of their time, energy, and observations with scientists. Studies show that environmental information collected by ordinary citizens can be just as scientifically reliable as data collected by professional scientists. Indeed, data from NatureWatch’s PlantWatch module has formed the basis of several scientific publications in recent years.
Where will such an army come from? How do we get millions of Canadians actively involved in citizen science? Motivating them shouldn’t be a problem. Canadians love nature. A 2011 IPSOS poll found that 87% of Canadians say that having a connection to nature makes them feel happy, and that 85% worry that the natural areas we enjoy today won’t be there for our grandchildren. The key, then, is to provide Canadians with the opportunity to engage in citizen science and some easy-to-use tools to get them started. That’s what NatureWatch is all about.
NatureWatch got its start back in the 1990s, when the internet was a new thing, and Canadian environmental scientists and naturalist organizations devised websites to encourage the public to submit data about ice, frogs, plants, and worms. It was years ahead of its time. Today there are literally thousands of citizen science initiatives across North America, with new ones popping up each day. A lot has changed since NatureWatch was launched, and so NatureWatch is being updated.
More Canadians than ever live in cities and suburbs. Our connection with nature is more likely to be formed in backyards and parks than in forests, and through structured activities like soccer practice or running clubs than through backcountry camping trips. Our kids spend so little time playing outside, experts worry that many suffer from ‘nature deficit disorder’. We need to get Canadian families more actively involved with nature and with citizen science, but we must accept that the experience will occur in the places and through activities that are part of our everyday lives. It’s nice to imagine a Canada where every Canadian spends a month hiking and camping in a national park, collecting water samples or cataloguing species like modern-day Darwins – but only a few of us will ever get that chance. We need to dispense with the romantic (and unscientific) ideal that nature can only be properly experienced on a mountaintop or while canoeing a remote lake. Most of us get our naturalist experiences when we spot a dandelion flowering on the lawn, or startle a frog into jumping into the duck pond at the local park. And that’s ok!
In fact, it’s more than ok, it’s fantastic! The frog in the neighbourhood duck pond is as ecologically important as an eagle soaring over mountaintops. The dandelion is as much a part of nature as is the redwood tree (but less impressive, it’s true). Not only do the frog and the dandelion provide us an opportunity to connect with nature, they also hold information about nature. The presence or absence of frogs teaches us about local water quality. The first day each spring that a dandelion flowers in your lawn tells us a piece of information about local climate conditions. Every day our eyes and ears take in thousands of pieces of information about the environment that, if only we could somehow capture and record it immediately, would be of tremendous value as scientific data.
That’s why we’re launching NatureWatch 2.0. The original NatureWatch was great, but it relied on users to make an observation about nature, write it down or store it away in their memory, and then remember to make an entry on the website the next time they were sitting at a computer. We’ve been fortunate to have very dedicated users over the years, and now we’re ready to grow that number and provide our users with a better experience. NatureWatch 2.0 is mobile friendly. If you see a frog in the neighbourhood pond, or spot that first flower of spring, all you have to do is whip out your smartphone, scroll through pictures of frogs or flowers until you match the one you’re looking at, and click. No advance planning is needed, no need to remember to enter data when you get back home. We’re also making it easier to track your observations on our NatureWatch map, and to find out how your observations are being used by environmental scientists to advance our understanding of Canadian nature. We’re also working behind the scenes to add additional interactive features, and to expand our family of NatureWatch programs. Please stay tuned.
We hope you give NatureWatch 2.0 a try. Channel your inner Charles Darwin. Let us know if NatureWatch helps, and tell us what we could do better.
Robert McLeman, Department of Geography & Environmental Studies, Wilfrid Laurier University